Illustration: Polly Crossman


Poetry, my little port in the storm

Following on from her Sometimes It’s The Little Things column, Ella Risbridger starts her new blog; seeking out different poems to better understand the world we’re living in

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By Ella Risbridger on

I am out to dinner with my boyfriend. There are candles. There is a bread basket, and real cloth napkins. Fancy green olives.

It feels a lot like a miracle, because we haven’t been out to dinner in a really, really long time.

For nine months, we’ve only eaten together at a hospital table, out of a takeaway tub; him propped up in a specially-engineered bed, me perched on an uncomfortable plastic chair.

Don’t get me wrong: we’ve managed to have some lovely moments. But it’s tricky to really feel romantic in a hospital bay, with a total stranger grappling with a bedpan just behind a flimsy curtain, and a nurse popping in every two minutes with a pot of pills.

But here we are: just for now, things are OK.

The round olives,” I tell John solemnly, “are the green all green things aspire to be.”

It’s a line from a poem I have always loved, and it’s true: the olives are so, so green. I quote it a lot, or I used to. I used to quote it when we went out for dinner.

It’s from a book by Rebecca Lindenberg called Love, An Index. The book is about a lot of things, but really her relationship with her partner, who disappeared.

And I’m not sure that I ever really understood it properly before right now. I thought first that it was a joyful book, then terribly sad. I realise, sitting here, that it’s both.

Something about realising this makes me tearful, as if I’ve found a little part of me that had been missing for ages. Something about the candles, and the olives, and the poem together feels like a port in a storm.

The storm, of course, is that John has been ill. So ill it starts to sound like a sick joke: what’s worse than cancer? Cancer and an acquired brain injury, of course! He’s been in hospital since Christmas; we have no idea when he might come home. He has to learn to walk and talk again first. I’ve been writing about it (read it here) for two years: the whole thing.

There’s another poem in Love, An Index, called Illuminations. All around the poem Lindenberg has written notes: fact-checking, extra sentences, things that needed to be said: I do not believe I remember any of this wrong but there is a reason I have left bits out

I think about that line a lot, and one that Lindenberg’s partner (Craig Arnold) wrote:

“Your pencil eraser wears down long before the point

    for every word you write

you rub out two”.

That’s how I’ve felt, trying to find words for this new life. Everything has changed for us – but as we’re out to dinner together, it feels suddenly as though nothing has. It’s a paradox: everything/nothing. Things are terrible, but sometimes wonderful. It’s utterly isolating. I don’t really know how to talk about it properly.

When John was first sick, I wrote a lot about how lipstick made me feel like I could deal with everything; that I was a confident and capable adult, all on my own.

Poetry has this reputation for being difficult. It doesn’t have to be. It can be that road map, or simply someone yelling out to let you know: I was here too! I understand!

But now? Now I want to feel like I’m part of a team; that someone else has walked this road before me. That I’m not alone. And so I come back, always, to books: poetry, specifically, because you can read it in snatched moments. Like lipstick, it’s a small and accessible pleasure. But unlike lipstick, it’s a connection. Whatever you’re feeling, someone has felt it before.

Poetry has this reputation for being difficult. It doesn’t have to be. It can be that road map, or simply someone yelling out to let you know: I was here too! I understand!

It might not be exactly the same situation. My boyfriend didn’t disappear while hiking a volcano, after all. But enough of the feelings are the same that the words feel right; and with the help of her words I can find my own. That’s what this new column is about: using other people’s words to understand better the world we’re all living in, and the way we’re living, and the way we are.

When I first read this book, I read the Tall Man parts (Tall, tall tall, tall, tall man/ you bend so as not to dent the firmament). I read the kissing, the morning filled wine bottles aftermath-of-a-party, the walk along the sea wall, the steam billows up the windows parts. The round olive bits. I loved these bits so much that I didn’t really notice anything else.

A poem is a kind of collaboration: partly what the writer wrote, partly what the reader reads. I don’t mean like at school, where everything is a bad metaphor for something else, but that (of course) you bring your own life with you when you read. How I read a poem might not be how you read a poem, and how I read a poem now might not be how I read it next year. Poems change as you do: the same words on the same page can be different because you are different.

I can’t tell you why I decided to reread Love, An Index the week John went into his almost-coma. Partly it was because I couldn’t read anything longer than a poem. Partly it was masochism. My copy was stained with red wine and olive oil, from too much reading in restaurants waiting for John to finish work. I wanted to remember exactly what I’d lost.

But it was not happy at all: it was so full of loss. Rebecca Lindenberg understood what it was like to miss someone the way I missed John. She understood everything.

Well-meaning visitors were skewered:

    You’re so brave = I wonder what it’s like when you’re alone

    You’re so strong = I can see you’ve showered

    Let me know if you need anything = I won’t come round again

My own weird urge to document things on social media:

Rebecca Lindenberg is in a relationship and it’s complicated. Rebecca Lindenberg is single and it’s complicated. Rebecca Lindenberg joined the group “It All Seems So Simple Now, In The Aftermath Of This Consciousness-Altering Tragedy.”

She understood what it was like to want to speak to someone who couldn’t reply (“at times I want to ask you if you remember this the same way but when I try to imagine what you’d say I find it’s like trying to play both sides of a chessboard”); and what it was like to be the one left at home (“Don’t worry/ he’ll be back/ any moment now”).

It was clear: this was a book about grief, not love.

But of course – as my life is, and all lives are – it’s both.

Those green olives are the last line in Rebecca Lindenberg’s book: they are the last picture you get. The last taste. These round olives: that was the moment in time when things were ok.

It’s not perfect, no. There’s sobbing in the poem, there’s maybe someone else, there’s nervousness. And it’s not forever. But for right then? There’s a port in a storm. It’s cold outside, but the stove is on, and the window is closed. For now, things are ok.

More than ok, really: beautiful. Even imperfect things – and all things are imperfect – can be beautiful.

John is still in a wheelchair; he is not coming home soon. The wine is good. The olives are green. We’re here together. These are all facts, and they all matter. And these are the evenings I want to remember when we’re back out there in the cold. These evenings, the honey to unbitter the lime.


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Illustration: Polly Crossman
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My life in poems

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